Ear effusion is a common problem. It occurs when fluid builds up behind the eardrum. When the problem becomes chronic it is known as glue ear. Children are more prone than adults because their Eustachian tube which drains the middle ear is narrower and more easily blocked. Sometimes the fluid becomes infected, leading to painful ears. Antibiotics may be required if there are signs that the inflammation is caused by bacteria. Viral infection is a common cause of ear blockage but antibiotics do not help in this situation. Antibiotics should not be used without a good reason because otherwise the individual may suffer side effects and colonisation with antibiotic resistant bacteria without receiving any of the benefits.
The skin which lines the ear is called mucous membrane. This means that it is usually slightly wet and that it forms a small amount of fluid. If the Eustachian tube is blocked this fluid builds up, causing an ear effusion. This can give a feeling of fullness and blockage in the ear.
Causes of blockage include having a viral infection, allergies and tonsillitis. Enlarged adenoids can also cause the problem. The tonsils and adenoids are small lumps of immune tissue at the back of the throat. Living in a house where somebody smokes can lead to glue ear in children. The smoke paralyses the little tiny hairs called cilia which normally waft the mucus out of the tubes. This causes mucus to build up, blocking them and causing the fluid to build up.
If the ear effusion does not cause a significant problem then it may be left untreated by a doctor. If the main problem is deafness then hearing aids may be recommended by a specialist. Sometimes recurrent ear infections can cause damage to the eardrum and hearing. It can also lead to sickness and time away from school or work. If this is a problem an ear specialist may recommend grommets. These are tiny ear tubes which ventilate and drain the middle ear space. They are usually left in situ for a few weeks. They often fall out on their own and the little hole which is left behind heals up after a few weeks.
Dr Toby Bateson for Zenplugs